How Does a Work Breakdown Structure (WBS) Work?

A seasoned construction planner appreciates the value of a well thought out Work Breakdown Structure. Best practices dictate that the process of developing the (WBS) begins early on within the project life cycle. In a perfect world, the owner, engineer and contractor collaborate and agree on the WBS which dictates how the project will be estimated,  engineered, planned and scheduled. The WBS also provides a means to establish an agreed upon Schedule of Values between the construction user and the contractor for billing and cash flow analysis purposes. In addition, the WBS determines the project management staffing requirements, who reports to who and how productivity and cost will be tracked.

What is a Work Breakdown Structure?

Essentially, project managers use a WBS to make complex projects more governable. Using a systemized graph or chart, the WBS helps to segment a project into various work scope groupings that progressively become more granular to enable the  stakeholders to better plan and execute the work. In other words, breaking down big jobs in to lots of little jobs.

More eloquently defined as a ‘hierarchical decomposition of the total scope of work to be carried out by the project team in order to accomplish project objectives and create deliverables’, a WBS starts with the outcome or product -- the ‘end goal’ of the answer. The lowest level of the WBS include Work Packages. Work Packages consist of one or more tasks.

The Project Planner, in collaboration with the Project Manager and frontline supervisors, will create the logic that establishes the relationships between the Work Packages within the project schedule. This process facilitates timely communication, coordination and assignment of resources down to the task level, with the goal to meet or improve upon the baseline cost and schedule established.   

Work Breakdown Structure in Project Management

Project managers can have a variety of approaches, but a WBS allows you to coordinate engineering, plant equipment, material, construction equipment, and labor resources for deliverables that align with the master schedule. In construction,  every project is somewhat unique. There is no hard and fast rule as to levels and detail of the WBS. The beauty and power of a WBS lies in its sense of the pragmatic and flexibility: the project team can develop the WBS  according to what makes sense based on the project type, size and complexity.

Problem solved, right?

We wish that were the case. Unfortunately the process previously described often times is not always followed. Largely due to the fragmentation of contractractual delivery methods, the various project stakeholder interests are not always aligned. All parties involved want the project to be completed without injuries, meet the requirements and be on time and within budget. But if each entity has their own version of how those goals are to be achieved (different WBSs), without reconciliation, disconnects will inevitably occur.

If engineering, procurement and construction are not on the same page, the contractors and their crews will, most likely not have what they need, when they need it. Schedule slippages, poor productivity, poor quality, cost overruns, and disputes are guaranteed to occur. You can count on it.

There is nothing quite like the execution of a perfect plan! Rather than playing the “blame game” all of us who work within this incredible, challenging industry, need to step up and fix this this problem. Although we believe there is an opportunity for simplification, proven best practices, systems and processes are available and well documented. Doing the right thing is not easy but if you’re looking for easy you may want to consider a different industry.

Trestles Labor Management System: Best Practices, Simplified

Trestles Labor Management System (TLMS®) is a web-based application designed to empower project management teams by using a quick and simple means to create a Work Breakdown Structure. The visualization and transparency provides project team members the opportunity to “weigh in” on the proposed structure and make agreed upon changes quickly.  The graphic display and embedded functionality enables planners to define Work Packages leading to effective and efficient planning, scheduling, constraint removal, and work performance reporting.

After the Work Package has been defined and time frames established within, the team can now break the Work Packages down to the task level, create a Short Interval Schedule, assign the Frontline Supervisor and the crew members, address safety concerns, drawings, specifications, QA/QC requirement, material, equipment, tools, and other requirements all within the TLMS® tool.

When the Work Package is completed, reviewed, approved and released the the information will be transferred to the Frontline Supervisor in charge of the work, accessible on their mobile device. The FLS can then review the tasks and the associated safety, quality and productivity requirements with the crew, execute the work and record time and progress,

This easy to learn, easy to use, affordable tool, empowers the crew leader to clearly communicate the plan and execute the work knowing that they have what they need to be successful. With the shortages of, and every increasing demands placed on our frontline supervisors, the primary objective of any construction firm that self performs their work should be to make sure their crews have everything they need to complete each task safely, efficiently and on time. To accomplish this, a well thought out Work Breakdown Structure is essential.

Trestles Construction Solutions...doing our part to solve the age old problem of workers without work or work without workers.  


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